Human beings like to get baked, broiled, toasted, steamed and dried. Even in chilly San Francisco, we crave warmth when the sun comes out and the temperature reaches just a bit above 50 degrees I start getting text messages from friends telling me they are heading to the beach, to Baker or Dolores Park.
How many saunas, steam rooms, bikram yoga studios, and health clubs are there in this city anyway? How many places are there for us to sit in a room with others and sweat? Who among us on a cold, foggy, rainy day doesn't yearn for time in a hot spring Esalen or Calistoga or the dry heat of Palm Springs? I've not been to any of those places yet but just their names make me want to hit the road.
While we Californians appreciate heat, I’m learning we're not alone. I was talking recently with a pastor from DC, who shared with me her love for a place called Spa World in the Virginia suburbs --- she’s considers it a place to find Sabbath rest and one of the few places to communally do nothing. All over the world human beings flock to hot spots and have for centuries. The Greeks and the Romans, in Japan and India, indigenous people, in the Middle East and of course the Finns all love their heat --- Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Pagans you name the religion some where, some how you’ll find a ritual involving fire, water, and cleansing.
Ash Wednesday wouldn't be Ash Wednesday with out heat. The ashes soon to be rubbed on our foreheads come from the burning of last year’s Palm Sunday palm fronds.
Perhaps this human compulsion towards heat, to places where we are exposed, naked, vulnerable, hot and sweaty --- is similar to what brings so many of us to this church in the middle of the week in the winter, a yearning to connect with the ground of our being --- with the truth, the earthy, the rawness of the human condition.
Ash Wednesday --- the entire season of Lent really is an invitation to connect with our humanity and surrender to God’s warm embracing love. Welcome to God’s spa, God’s sauna --- God’s health club. Welcome to Lent.
Sure --- Ash Wednesday is about serious stuff, confessing our sins, and facing our mortality. Lots of people of course give up something during this season chocolate or meat, or start something new meditation or a new exercise program --- to deepen their connection with God and to mark this season as something set a part.
Yet as we enter Lent, God’s spa, God’s health club before we hit start on the religious StairMaster-- in this evening’s gospel Jesus, has some warnings for us.
While we can take all kinds of classes, we can learn how to stand on our head, and lift a ton of weight and can compete with others. Jesus says all this fasting, repentance, and giving alms...all the religious rituals we engage in are not about keeping up with someone else, or being more holier than another, becoming more religiously fit but about surrendering to the warmth of God's love.
Jesus, as personal trainer and community compassion aerobics instructor might even suggest that the really hard work in God’s gym goes on in the sauna ---- where we’re challenged to sit next to another sweaty smelly person or quietly alone with the beads of sweat dripping down us, where we are compelled to really take time to reflect on our lives, pains, hopes, dreams and prayers.
Learning to do nothing --- nothing at all but surrender to the one who loves us --- to the one who invites us to let go of comparing ourselves to others (beware of practicing your piety). In the same chapter of Matthew we just heard, Jesus teaches his disciples to pray and invites us out of the limitations of class, race, and religion to be part of one human family (our father, who art in heaven) who invites us to enter God’s realm (thy kingdom come, thy will be done) where only love matters, where nothing more is taken than what is needed (give us this day our daily bread), who asks us to let go of our grudges, and resentments (forgive us our trespasses as we forgive others) who asks us to face the cruelty and injustice within ourselves and the systems we live in (deliver us from evil).
In thinking about this day, this season I ran across a piece by Anne Howard, Executive Director of a wonderful organization called the Beatitudes Society she reflects on the words of Urban T. Holmes,
Lent is not 40 days and 40 ways to self-improvement. No, No, No. Lent is the invitation to settle deeply into our humanity, bruised knees, bruised egos and all. This kind of settling in is different from coming up with disciplines that might make us better. Anglican theologian Terry Holmes once said that Lent is “an opportunity to lay aside our need for control and to enter into the chaos of our inner selves, our society and the world. It¹s not the time, he said, “to tighten up the screws on our spiritual lives,” to gain mastery over our bad habits.
Ash Wednesday, this Lent then is not about self-improvement, it is about surrender. Ash Wednesday, Lent are about turning up the gospel heat on our lives, letting the distractions be burned away by grace and getting down to basics.
When I think about this surrendering--- I’m taken back to the first cathedral I ever knew --- a place in the mountains of Virginia that is also the camp and conference center of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia. At the end of each week of camp in the heat and humidity after days of playing capture the flag, hiking, and singing songs until our throats hurt regardless of ones age or what the theme of the camp, a dance happened. Beginning at twilight and ending under a majestic starlit sky. In the midst of these dances everyone seemed some how to find freedom, to let go, to surrender to something far greater than them selves, there it seemed God’s encompassing love was given free expression. Remember that you are dust --- if you’ve ever shaken out an old rug --- you know that dust flies --- camp dances were much like that --- and the surrendering was our offering to the God who loves us.
I used to think that these nostalgic memories of church camp were irrelevant --- were naïve --- until a few years ago as part of a group from the Diocese of California I visited a community of youth in South Africa who in the face of overwhelming hardships, AIDS and economic desperation --- have been able to stare death and greed in the face and dance and sing with an intensity of warmth as hot as any sauna. Who knew profoundly that all of us are dust and to dust we shall return. The South African youth we met at the Bokamoso Youth Center knew something profound about surrendering to God, befriending death--- giving up control, shaking out the dirty rug, dancing, and singing.
Lent begins for each of us right now, in a few minutes we’ll be smeared with ashes and these words will be said to each of us who wants it, remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. Holy, sacred, raw, earthy, dirty, and strange.
Paradoxically, it seems we’ve got to get dirty to get clean ---
Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent is an invitation to release the inner poet and mystic in all of us --- to strip down and enter the sweat lodge. Get dirty to get clean.
The great 20th century monk and interfaith pioneer Thomas Merton wrote about Ash Wednesday in this way,
I think Merton and his barefoot sisters and brothers would be at home in God’s sauna, God’s spa, God’s sweat lodge.
In some monastic communities, monks go up to receive the ashes barefoot. Going barefoot is a joyous thing. It is good to feel the floor or the earth under your feet. It is good when the whole church is silent, filled with the hush of people walking without shoes. One wonders why we wear such things as shoes anyway. Prayer is so much more meaningful without them. It would be good to take them off in church all the time.
Yes, Ash Wednesday and Lent are about acknowledging our sins and the reality of death --- discovering the truth that in order to really live we need to become friends with death. We need to connect with our humanity --- to our fragility --- we need to strip down, buck naked and surrender to the God who loves us.
As we take our membership card in God’s Gym and are smeared with ashes in the shape of a cross, may we know we’re heading toward a mystery and the strangest most sublime gift. The one we follow, the one who instructs us, who helps us find our way bares all for us, was humiliated, beaten, and tortured --- stretched out arms wide, the ultimate surrender, and died. Despite all our failures, shortcomings, and wrongs in Christ’s resurrection all are given reason to dance and sing whatever shape we’re in, whatever we’ve been through --- whether we’ve followed the workout plan closely or lost our way long ago.
So go sit in a sauna, go lie on a beach, walk in the park, take off your shoes, shake out the rug, dance in the moonlight under a sky full of dust, sit and pray awhile in this cavernous oasis in the city called Grace Cathedral--- and know that you are dust.
May we walk out at the end of our Lenten pilgrimage, these 40 days more mature, wise and joy filled than when we started.
May Lent be a time for us to surrender, to let go of control, and to open up.
May this Ash Wednesday help us connect with our bodies with our fragility, pain, grief and longing.
There is no doubt that this nation, this world, ourselves, need intense body work, therapy and time in God’s spa. We need to let it all hang out. To reveal the truth --- to uncover the pain, grief, suffering, the deceit, to take off the mask and everything else that attempts to hide us from God and one another.
We need to let God’s hands into the mess of our lives, to touch us deeply, too massage us, to let out the stress and strain, to warm us, delight us, and heal us.
There is such pain, grief and longing stored deep in each of us --- in this city, in the world, in this cathedral. Surrender.
Whatever our class, race, religion, gender or sexual orientation --- we’ve got an opportunity in Lent to make some choices that help us live more authentic lives, to strip down and be the human beings we’ve been created to be. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Welcome to God’s 24-hour free health club, its warm in here.